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WHO BURNED
RICHMOND?



Ruins in 
   front of Capitol - 1865266
Ruins in front of the State Capitol, 1865.
(Richmond, Virginia)






Writers and interpreters of history, using basically the same source data, sometimes come up with different conclusions concerning the same event. The differences vary in importance, from minor, such as a soldier's opinion of an event, to major, such as how many Union soldiers were killed in what period of time at Cold Harbor or, as in this case, which actions resulted in the business district of Richmond burning during the evacuation fire in April 1865.

The following illustrate this point
(Highlighting provided by the Editor.) :

  • Nelson Lankford, author of Richmond Burning published by Penguin Books, says, on page 107 of the paperback version of his book,

    "...Ewell (Confederate General.-Ed.) later laid responsibility for the worst of the fires at the feet of the mob. He swore that they set fire to a large mill far from the tobacco warehouses fired by his soldiers, and he further alleged that it was that burning mill, not the warehouses, that spread the destruction. Certainly, in the predawn confusion, some of the looters may have set some fires. But Ewell convinced few people that the great fire had nothing to do with his men or their deliberate demolition of the warehouses and bridges through military orders passed down the chain of command...."

    Perhaps the above statement is why Jonathan Yardley, of the The Washington Post, says on the back cover of the paperback version,  

    "Unlike many of his predecessors, Lankford is able to see
    without Lost Cause blinders or magnolia-suffused sentimentality."


Well let's see if we can continue without Lost Cause blinders or magnolia-suffused sentimentality."

  • The National Archives, at http://www.archives.gov/research/civil-war/photos/, says,

    "...118. Silhouette of ruins of Haxall's mills, 1865, showing some of the destruction caused by a Confederate attempt to burn Richmond. 111-B-137...."
  • The Library of Congress, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/apr02.html, reports,

    "...Richmond, meanwhile, burned, as fires set by fleeing Confederates and looters" raged out of control..."
  • The National Park Service, at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/hh/33/hh33s.htm, addresses the burning of Richmond,

    "...All semblance of law and order disappeared. When the guards at the State penitentiary fled, the prisoners broke loose to roam the city at will....The order had been given to burn all tobacco and cotton that could not be removed by tossing flaming balls of tar into the warehouses along the riverfront.

    "...Mayor Mayo and the city council had appointed a committee in each ward to see that all liquor was destroyed, and shortly after midnight they set to work. Casks and barrels of the finest southern bourbons were rolled to the curbs, the tops smashed open and left to drain.

    "...The mobs swarmed and fought their way into the streets where the whiskey flowed like water. Men...used...anything that would hold the...liquid. They used rags on sticks dipped in whiskey for torches, and went howling through the city in search of food and plunder like a pack of mad wolves, looting, killing,
    burning."

    "...The blaze from the Shockhoe Warehouse at Thirteenth and Cary streets, where 10,000 hogsheads of tobacco was put to the torch, flew skyward...The flames quickly spread to the Franklin Paper Mills and the Gallego Flour Mills.

    "...A faint hot breeze began to stir from the southeast, scattering burning embers through the streets and alleys and houses. Powder magazines and arsenals let go with a whooshing boom. Thousands of bullets and shells tore through buildings and ploughed up the streets.

    "...Richmond was now one vast inferno of flame, noise, smoke, and trembling earth. The roaring fire swept northwestward from the riverfront, hungrily devouring the two railroad depots, all the banks, flour and paper mills, and hotels, warehouses, stores, and houses by the hundreds.

    "About dawn a large crowd gathered in front of the huge government commissary at Fourteenth and Cary streets, on the eastern edge of the fire. The doors were thrown open and the government clerks began an orderly distribution of the supplies. Then the drunken mob joined the crowd.

    "Barrels of hams, bacon, flour, molasses, sugar, coffee, and tea were rolled into the streets or thrown from windows...When the building finally caught fire from the whiskey torches, the mob swarmed into other sections of the doomed city where the few remaining clothing, jewelry, and furniture stores were ruthlessly looted and
    burned." A casket factory was broken into, the caskets loaded with plunder and carried through the streets, and the fiendish rabble roared on unchecked.

    "As the drunken night reeled into morning the few remaining regiments of General Kershaw's brigade, which had been guarding the lines east of Richmond, galloped into the city on their way south to join Lee in his retreat to Appomattox. They had to fight their way through the howling mob to reach Mayo's Bridge. As the rearguard clattered over, Gen. M. W. Gary shouted, "All over, good-bye; blow her to hell."
  • Charles B Dew, author of Ironmaker to the Confederacy published by Library of Virginia, provides on Page 286 the following,

    "...When the government began moving out of Richmond on the afternoon of April 2, Anderson took added precautions to insure the safety of his plant (Tredegar Iron Works -Ed.). Loyal members of the Tredegar Battalion answered his call for aid, loaded their muskets, and took up positions around the works. This action saved the Tredegar. Looting broke out as Confederate troops tramped south across the James, and in the moonless early morning hours of April 3 a rampaging mob seized control of the warehouse district. Their ranks swollen by convicts who had broken loose en masse from the nearby penitentiary,
    looters spread the flames originally put to government depots and tobacco storehouses. Countermanding Gorgas' order not to destroy any ordnance facilities, this motley crowd set fire to the Confederate arsenal," causing an explosion that shattered practically every window at the Tredegar and sent shells crashing through the roofs of Anderson's buildings. The arsonists then moved toward the nearby Tredegar plant to finish off their night's handiwork. The resistance of Anderson and his men blunted the thrust of the mob, however, and it broke and retreated back toward the center of town."

    In a footnote listing sources for the above, Dew says

    "...Confederate troops did not attempt to burn Tredegar works, as several of the above authors suggest"

So what is our opinion?

Obviously, the Confederates never intended to burn the city. We don't think that even the Washington Post would take that position.

The mobs played a larger roll than current opinion wants to admit, in spreading the fires.

As the fires spread, was their source the warehouse fires set by the Confederates or the numerous other fires set by the mob? It appears more than likely that both sources contributed to the destruction. But who knows which fires were the source for which destruction?

And does it really matter now?

Yes it does. If we write or talk about the evacuation fires, we don't want to be accused of having
"Lost Cause blinders and magnolia-suffused sentimentality," by a Washington Post employee.

Just our opinion,

Content Team


 

** Bruce Catton addresses the "Lost Cause" in the book "Bruce Catton - Reflections on the Civil War" edited by John Leekley, published by Promontory Press.

On Pages 227-228 (hardback) Catton says, "The essence of the legend of Lee and the dauntless Confederate soldiers was that they suffered mightily in a great but lost cause. The point is that this very phrase accepts the cause as having been lost. There was no hint in this legend of biding one's time and waiting for a moment when there could be revenge. This was the lost cause; something to be cherished, to be revered, to be the outlet for emotions, but not to be the center of a new outbreak of violence. In that sense, I think the legend of the lost cause has served the entire country very well..."

Why the "Lost Cause" instills such dislike, approaching hatred, in the Civil War elite, I have no idea. As an experiment, go on a History message board and some where in your comments include the words "Lost Cause" (It does not even have to be in context) and see what happens. Brace yourself, it will not be pleasant. -Ed.

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